THE WASHINGTON POST – Critic Michael Dirda has found the antidote to the blues, and it should surprise none of his readers to learn the cure involves cracking open a book from a time gone by.
“In a last-ditch effort to regain what is usually called ‘the holiday spirit’,” he wrote in a recent column, “I’ve taken to fleeing the present, at least now and then, and reading my way into another era.”
For Dirda, the time and place that serves up some of the best “comic refreshment” is England just before and after World War I, when Daisy Ashford, Cleone Knox, Wodehouse and Jerome Jerome were producing delightful fiction.
As is often the case, the comments section on the story turned lively, with readers offering up a buffet of treats for those of us hungry for something delectable and sweet.
“I enjoy the comments on Dirda’s articles as much as I enjoy the article itself,” commenter Auntie Max chimed in. “This is a pandemic public service!”
In the spirit of charity, we’ve rounded up some of the suggestions here for your reading pleasure.
“Two more for your delectation,” wrote Wonderful World: “Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day – by an author who quit writing much too soon, Winifred Watson. It’s a soap bubble made of crystal. It seems like a fragile, brittle work but it has endured. I’m a missionary for it!” The other is (The) Enchanted April, by Elizabeth von Arnim. Added our commenter, “This book is so charming and effortless that you can’t help smiling the whole way through.”
Commenter Batty Girl has an ingenious plan for weathering the winter months. “Every year Batty and I select from our groaning shelves a ‘winter book’ to read aloud to each other. In the past years it has been Anna Karenina, A House For Mr. Biswas, (The) Woman in White, or Lolita. The requirements are that the book be a ‘classic’ and that it be really thick and dense with prose.
“Anything that gets us from winter into spring. This year, it’s Middlemarch. And I am loving it. It’s like George Eliot picked up the quill where Jane Austen left off.
“Such insight into human types, their souls (or lack thereof), wit (nit- or half-), or simply what drives them. She is a master at ‘show, don’t tell’ and by reading her, I realise people are the same as they ever were.”
A number of commenters appreciated that Dirda name-checked Georgette Heyer. “I discovered Heyer earlier in the pandemic, and she was just the ticket,” wrote Debra Skafar.
And there were multiple recommendations for books by Angela Thirkell (including Cheerfulness Breaks In), Nancy Mitford – “Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love… Pure gold both,” wrote Laurence Bachmann – and Dorothy Sayers. “I’m up to my ears in Sayers novels right now,” wrote Helga65, “and they are just the escapist ticket one would wish for!”
Commenter Lupino’s “two recommendations are Barbara Pym – anything she wrote – and Miss Mole, by E H Young. Both authors write female protagonists with understated, self-effacing humour.”
Crankykate had a slightly more raucous idea: “Mary Roberts Rinehart’s Bab: A Sub-Deb. It relates the adventures of one Bab, a young woman from a wealthy family, who wreaks havoc and spreads mayhem as she anxiously awaits the privilleges and delights of her debutante year… You can find it free at the Gutenberg archive.”
And prolific reader Nansen47 appears to have ample authority on the subject of literary escapism during a pandemic.”Historical novels are particularly appropriate because a good one can transport the reader far from our current troubles. I started in April by re-reading Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series about the British Navy during the age of sail.
O’Brian’s novels not only provide a holodeck-type experience, they are peppered with examples of how sailors adapted to months at sea (for example, making and darning their clothing, playing music together.
I finished the 21-volume series and then re-read O’Brian’s biography of Joseph Banks. I view the pandemic as an opportunity to read and have finished more than 70 books, so far – none as enjoyable as O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series”.
Lastly, kate208 added: “If you want some slightly later books that provide high comedy played for very low stakes, check out E M Delafield’s Provincial Lady series… My current best resource for light reading is a series called The Furrowed Middlebrow, which publishes women’s fiction written from 1910 to 1960.
“They are in the process of reissuing the great Margery Sharp and Stella Gibbons (of Cold Comfort Farm fame). Just a quick Furrowed Middlebrow search sent me to a new-to-me book called Much Dithering that I expect to keep me happily in another time for a day or two.”